On Monday’s drive home, I tuned in to NPR’s All Things Considered. There was promise of a story on rapper/singer Lauryn Hill later in the broadcast, but it didn’t air while I was in the car. Thus, I picked it up via Twitter and listened to it yesterday.
Since I tend to comment on things in pairs, my interests in the brief feature were two-fold.
1. It contained some people talking about how they grew up listening to her music.
2. The reclusive Hill was herself interviewed and intimated that she may be recording again.
I may not have a signed meal card like one of her fans talks about in the piece, but too grew up with Hill. The Fugees rose to fame in the mid-90s, approximately around my awful year in 7th grade. While I hadn’t listened to the debut Blunted on Reality, MTV engineered the feeling that I discovered them. I remember first seeing L-Boogie, Wyclef, and Praz on Squirt TV. A few weeks later, the music video for “Fu-Gee-La” played on Yo! MTV Raps. And then their cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” took over the world, selling millions of copies of their 1996 breakthrough album The Score, putting the group on the cover of Rolling Stone and catapulting Hill to superstar status.
It didn’t hurt that The Score was a great record. With the glaring exception of that racist skit in the Chinese restaurant, most songs on the album bridge pop accessibility with political nuance and a distinct cinematic quality that showcased each members individual talents. “The Beast,” “Ready or Not,” “Family Business,” especially “The Mask” . . . this album is a classic to me.
But then Hill struck out on her own and made The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which came out in 1998. I loved it. It was so affirming and singular and deserved all the Grammys it received, including the first Album of the Year given to a hip hop full-length. I was so thrilled by her success. To me, she was the whole package: great singer, dexterous rapper, smart, funny, politically conscious, and beautiful to boot.
Of course, then things got complicated. Lawsuits were filed. Hill never recorded a proper follow-up and reports circulated of increasingly erratic behavior. I recall someone asking why Lauryn Hill wasn’t included in the hip hop documentary Say My Name at a Q&A following a SXSW screening. Director Nirit Peled stated that Hill was originally approached to be in the documentary, but told the crew not to look her in the eyes and refused to answer to anything but “Ms. Hill.” Having heard similar things elsewhere, I’ve long been of the mind that the music industry really damaged her.
But I’ve always rooted for her. At the risk of drawing inappropriate comparisons, I have much more invested in Hill returning to music than, say, Courtney Love (who recently played with Hole at the 9:30 Club to at least one irate critic). I was excited to see the Fugees reform for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, but glad that they didn’t do much past record a track or two if it didn’t feel right to them. I don’t want Hill to force a comeback. But if she’s ready, I’m here to listen.
Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.
For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.
I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.
However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.
But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1’s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters. What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.
I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.
In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.
Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.
In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.
Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.
I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.
Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.
I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.
Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.
I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
The first half of 2010 has been eventful for music, hasn’t it? Epic break-up albums from Spoon, Joanna Newsom, Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Controversial music videos from Lady Gaga, Badu, and M.I.A. Janelle Monáe cornering the “Hey Ya” market with “Tightrope.” The initial run of David Simon’s Treme, which is a feast for music geeks. Courtney Love re-emerging like some fucked-up phoenix rising from the ashes of coke and pixie dust. Corin Tucker making a solo album. The Lilith Fair relaunching this summer, though unfortunately at one point in support of anti-choice brainwashing complexes crisis pregnancy centers. Christina Aguilera collaborating with some interesting folks on her new album. And so many amazing album covers. Goddamn.
By my count, we have four new covers to talk about: the Dap-Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Hole’s Nobody’s Daughter, Monáe’s soon-to-be-released The ArchAndroid, and Aguilera’s Bionic. As I want to write proper reviews for the first three titles, I figured today’s post could be on D*Face‘s cover art for Bionic, which doesn’t come out until June. I’ll admit that I’m pretty nervous that I don’t see Santigold, M.I.A., and Le Tigre listed as producers on the album’s Wiki entry. While I do note Ladytron, I’ll also point out that it’s the dudes in the band who worked with her. The lead single “Not Myself Tonight,” has been released and I like it even if it’s slipping on the charts. The Hype Williams-directed video is set to premiere on Vevo tomorrow, though you can look at snippets and stills from the singer’s Web site. The cover was revealed last month and to whet our appetites, I thought we could briefly look at it.
Haters can say that the lead single is derivative, but that’s one hell of a cover. Admittedly, the critique is pretty close to the surface: the cover shows the obscured constructedness of pop stars, the technological interventions on their voices and bodies, and the potential disembodiment of normative and subservient female glamor. I’d also bring up Richard Dyer’s call in White to make whiteness strange. It also seems to recall Daft Punk’s politically dire and underrated Human After All and the corporate shills and politicians in They Live.
As I mentioned in my review of Badu’s new album linked above, the cyborg — and the cyborg as doll — is a racially fraught cultural figure that black women have channeled in their work, particularly Missy Elliott and Lil Kim. I’d add Monáe and Nicki Minaj (channeling Kim) to that list.
I’d also point out that Björk and Chris Cunningham challenged the racial and sexual connotations of the cyborg in the music video for “All Is Full Of Love.”
I’m not convinced that Aguilera has done anything new here, but continue to be interested with whom and what she chooses to align.
Wristbands for SXSW went on sale today. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the music festival is my favorite time of the year. I get no sleep, somehow go to work during the day, my feet hurt real bad, I smell like garbage soup come Sunday morning, and I usually end my nights with deliciously greasy food to soak up the beer. Absolute best. But since I know the proceedings can be a little overwhelming, I thought I’d offer some tips.
First, some petty bullshit.
-Calling it “South By” sounds like you’re trying to break into the industry. If you keep going, you’ll find that “South West” rolls right off the tongue. Okay, you can call it “South By.” Especially if we’re friends. I won’t correct you or make a face. But I will call it “South By South West.”
Now, some practical information regarding comfort.
-Relaxed dress code, ya’ll. Many follow the impulse to get styled out. And hey, power to you if you’re young and like playing with clothes. And if you decide that leather jodhpurs look great with your aunt’s vintage blue sequined tube top and later discover that you’re horribly wrong, Vice or Look At This Fucking Hipster might still take your picture and you can tell/text/Tweet your friends. I’m more casual, however. Hence why you haven’t seen me. The best you could hope for from me is being the brown-haired girl in a red hooded sweatshirt standing almost out of frame smirking at the girl wearing a tube top and jodhpurs.
-Keep in mind that you’ll be on your feet 98% of the time. You’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands or walking to places where you’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands. Some of these places will be outdoors where you’ll kick up dirt. It could rain. Some asshole might drop a full beer bottle or step on your toes. This is not the time to break out those pointy flats, gladiator sandals, platform pumps, peep-toe booties, jellies, or whatever fashionable shoe begs an audience. Think sneakers or, if you must be cool, flat-heeled boots. Also, since the 90s are back, maybe you still have a pair of floral print Doc Martens. If you have them in a size 5 and don’t want them anymore, give them to me.
-Free beer is great. If candy be dandy, then liquor be quicker. But you’re gonna need to drink lots of water. Dehydration is not the move.
-Remember that deliciously greasy late-night food I was talking about? Might I recommend Star Seeds or the vegan-friendly Kebabalicious for your cravings? Can’t go wrong with a treat from Mrs. Johnson’s either, especially since you can get a fresh glazed donut for free. I haven’t been to the 24 Diner yet, but it might be worth pursuing. If you wanna go the drive-thru route, What-A-Burger is Texas’s gift to tourists. I’m not so into Kerbey Lane or Magnolia Café, but they get it done. These are just some after-hours options. Entertaining the idea of what restaurant to eat at in Austin is a decision to step into a larger world. We’ve got good food locked down. If you’re looking for vegan fare, Lazy Smurf was good enough to provide a comprehensive list of restaurants. Happy eating!
-Sunscreen is a buddy. Earplugs are buddies too. But I always forget to bring them.
And now, the music.
-If you wanna gadabout and maybe see some shows, there’s lots of options. The festival offers tons of free, all-ages stuff put together by good people like Todd P. They’re even nice enough to offer those listings in neat little indexes you can fold in your back pocket. But if you want to see specific acts, particularly buzz artists covered by The Onion, Pitchfork, NPR, or others, you’re most likely gonna need a wristband. This is an international festival. Venues fill to capacity. If you can’t make this happen but you’re a student on spring break or can take off work, day shows and after-hours parties are your buddies. You can see a lot of up-and-coming acts that will be playing in the evening for little to no cover.
-Even if you can make it happen, take some time to enjoy the day shows. KVRX always delivers. TerrorbirdMedia put together great showcases. Yard Dog is for sweethearts. NPR is a buddy. GRCA is putting together a great day show.
-If you are coming in from out of town, please make sure you check out our local talent. Austin’s touted as the live music capital for a reason, as the city is lousy with awesome bands. One only needs to check out Matador’s Casual Victim Pile compilation for recent evidence (note: the title is an anagram for “live music capital” — har har). As a local, I tend not to see so many local bands during the evening because they’re around and I have to prioritize. But if I didn’t, I’d see as many Austin bands as I could. You should too.
-If you like an act, check to see what label they’re on. Chances are you might like another band on the roster. If you do, it’s probably worth checking out the label’s showcase. Some record labels I follow: Merge, DFA/Astralwerks, Warp, Kill Rock Stars, K, Stones Throw, anticon., XL, 4AD, Carpark, Kranky, and Sub Pop. They usually put on day shows as well, sometimes with other labels.
-If you feel like exploring new sounds or are intrigued by an act because of its name, do a little investigating. Might I suggest checking in with that thing called MySpace as a starting point? It has to be good for something.
-Don’t be afraid of bands you don’t know. Trust your friends and their tastes if you have evidence of compatibility, because you might discover something really special. In 2005, I remember going to the Church of the Friendly Ghost (RIP) to see a band because someone I knew thought I’d really like them. They were a British dance band and I don’t believe they had a deal in the states yet. They were a polite, brainy bunch who put on a great show and had lots of energy. They even did a charming cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Miracles.” Their name is Hot Chip and I haven’t been able to catch them since.
-Build a schedule. You can do it through SXSW’s Web site. Print it out or plug it into your phone. You’ll want it with you at all times.
-Stay connected. I posted this today, but acts will be added up to the last possible minute. Check SXSW’s Web site, Twitter, Facebook, listservs, various e-mags, etc. I will also update this post as more acts I like are announced.
-Finally, I’ll offer up lists of bands I’m planning to see so that setting a schedule can be a bit more manageable. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather my list. I’m not interested in being a tastemaker. I’ve taken the liberty of putting my selections in tiers. Tier 1 are acts you can only see during SXSW (last year’s example was Flower Travellin’ Band, a 60s-era Japanese psych-noise band). Tier 2 are the acts I’m really hoping to see. Tier 3 are the acts that have a lot of hype around them or staying power to them and are worth seeing. The Texas section is self-explanatory, and is all-killer, no filler. It’s a hierarchy, but it keeps things tidy. Also, I provided links to every artist so you can check ‘em out.
Aa, Julianna Barwick, The Besnard Lakes, Best Coast, Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra, Black Milk, Bomba Estéreo, Breakestra, Califone, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Exene Cervenka, Daedelus, Kimya Dawson, Dengue Fever, Dosh, Damaged Good$, Dam Funk, The Entrance Band, Explode Into Colors, Fashawn, Flying Lotus, GZA, Invincible, Jean Grae, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Les Savy Fav, Liars, Lyrics Born, Madlib, Major Lazer (their debut album didn’t meet my lofty expectations, but they should be fun in a live setting), Mayer Hawthorne and the County, Memory Tapes, MEN, Mountain Man, Murs, 9th Wonder, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jemina Pearl, People Under the Stairs, Phantogram, Pharoahe Monch, Psalm One, Smoosh, Themselves, Tobacco, Toro Y Moi, Total Abuse, Viv Albertine, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, The xx, YACHT.
Matias Aguayo, Andrew WK, Blue Scholars, BO-PEEP, Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, Bowerbirds, Kría Brekkan, Broken Bells, Broken Social Scene, Buckshot, !!!, Class Actress, Cocktail Slippers, Crystal Antlers, Drawlings, The Ettes, 4th Pyramid, The Fresh & Onlys, General Elektriks, Golden Triangle, Ha Ha Tonka, Hole (if it happens), Horse Feathers, Hunx and his Punx, jj, Kid Sister, KIT, Solange Knowles, Sondre Lerche, Thurston Moore, Neon Indian, Nappy Roots, No Age, Denitia Odigie, Peelander-Z, Pocahaunted, Pomegranates, Ra Ra Riot, The Raveonettes, Rhymefest, The Ruby Suns, Rye Rye, School Of Seven Bells, She & Him, Slum Village, Surfer Blood, Thee Oh Sees, Titus Andronicus, Tyvek, Uffie, The Very Best, Visqueen, Washed Out, Wale, Warpaint, The Watson Twins, Yip-Yip, Jonneine Zapata, Zs.
Balmorhea, Best Fwends, Scott H. Biram, The Carrots, Dikes of Holland, Daniel Francis Doyle, Follow That Bird, Girl in a Coma, Paradise Titty, Pink Nasty, RATKING, Spoon (sorta local, though a big-tent act; they get a pass because Transference is my favorite album of 2010 thus far), The Strange Boys, T Bird and the Breaks, Ume, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Wine and Revolution, Woven Bones, White Ghost Shivers, YellowFever.
Have fun! See you around town!
So, by now we probably all know that Christina Aguilera’s got a new album coming out this spring. It’s called Bionic, which is as rad a title as any. I consider myself a Christina fan, and have enjoyed watching her develop as a singer. And I thought Back to Basics, while overlong, was a lot of fun. Do we all need to watch the “Candyman” music video she co-directed with Matthew Rolston to jog our memories? Okay.
But while I’ve got Bionic on my radar, the folks she’s collaborated with is what really fills me with anticipation. She’s worked with rad ladies like M.I.A., Santigold, and post-riot grrrl icons Le Tigre. If she could bring in artists like Björk, one of her favorite singers, or Gossip, my head might explode. I’m anticipating some tough, glossy electroclash and I hope I get it. While I’m not sure what the album sounds like and do hold some reservations, I’m excited that Le Tigre have been back at work after their hiatus. Also I do think this collaboration is important.
Sure, indie music’s cross-pollinations with commercial fare in the recent past are well-documented. If this applies to big-name producers like Lukasz Gottwald, it certainly applies to lesser-known talent who might be able to lend a certain caché. Remember when LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy tried to produce a Britney Spears single? Hell, remember the rumor that Kathleen Hanna was going to serve as one of the many producers of Paris Hilton’s inauspicious debut? Yeah, we’ve been doing this for a while.
But how often do independent and mainstream female artists work together? How many superstar pop singers espouse even remotely feminist values that could jibe with Le Tigre’s politics (besides P!nk and maybe Lady Gaga)? How many pop stars even claim “Deceptacon” to be one of their jams? And while Mariah Carey liked Hole’s Live Through This, I like that Aguilera actually went in to the studio with these artists. I’ll reserve judgement on the music until I hear a final product, but I respect the professional motivations of all parties. I also look forward to hearing the results, especially if they’re built for the dance floor.
I read two books from the 33 1/3 book series last weekend, in an on-going effort to think about its approach to canon formation. Since reading the two titles in question, I’ve been sitting on my hands thinking about how to write a post about them. They were two interesting, disparate pieces written by Gillian Gaar and Daphne Brooks on albums that somehow seem linked. Gaar documents the recording process of a band’s follow-up to an album that resulted in their meteoric rise. Brooks weaves her personal history as an African American woman growing up as a member of Generation X, who was a graduate student when another artist’s only proper full-length was released.
Too bad dudes made ‘em, right? Dudes who died young and didn’t release any more albums. Dudes who were dreamy, sensitive alternative pin-ups. They probably showed up on some teenage bedroom walls. I never harbored a crush on Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, but I get the appeal. However, in the 7th grade I taped a picture of Jeff Buckley in my notebook. The crush continues.
The heartthrob factor has been what has kept me from writing a post. I consider this blog to be a space where issues of gender, among a multitude of oft-intersecting identity categories, are critical to how we understand music culture. As a feminist, I wanted that space to focus on female contributions. I made this decision not because I’m a misandrist but because, so often, our work is denounced or ignored. Plus, I find the efforts some feminist publications take toward acknowledging the good guys is really a way to affirm that “feminism” isn’t a euphemism for “She-Woman Man-Haters Club.” This perception is misinformed and antiquated, and I feel like we enervate feminism when magazines like Bust run a cisgender “Men We Love” issue. Do we really need to give guys the focus in our own feminist projects just to prove that we aren’t all man-haters, lesbians, or man-hating lesbians? Can’t we have anything to ourselves?
That said, I wondered if by thinking about how women view these particular male artists and considering how these men complicated issues of gender and sexuality in their own work, I could write a thoughtful entry.
I’ll address Gaar’s book first. Though her entry came out a year after Brooks’s, she’s discussing an album that predates Grace‘s arrival in the market by several months, and a band who effectively dissolved a few months after its release. We know why Nirvana disbanded, though opinion differs as to how Cobain died at 27 (most abide by his death being a suicide; there’s a faction of people, Kim Gordon among them, who believe he was murdered). Refreshingly, Gaar takes all of this as a given and decides not to dwell on the band’s superstardom or the lead singer’s untimely end. She also doesn’t comb In Utero for clues as to the lead singer’s mental state, acknowledging that a number of fans and critics have already done the forensic work to determine for themselves whether or not Nirvana’s last album is its lead singer’s suicide note.
Instead, Gaar primarily focuses on the recording and mixing of the album, and a bit of the aftermath. I really appreciate this approach. She walks the reader through the players, the jargon, and the studio process with a journalist’s eye for detail and uncluttered prose. She also weaves first-person accounts from bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl, recording engineer Steve Albini, and others. In doing so, she stresses Albini’s reticence toward working with a band of such commercial stature, his dismissal of the credit “producer,” Cobain’s deliberate pace as a lyric writer, how quickly the band worked in the studio, the struggle the band faced in attempting to distance themselves from the radio-ready slickness of the Butch Vig-produced Nevermind, song selection, album art, video production, and how much of the album ended up being remixed so as to be more commercially palatable.
BTW, Albini also recorded PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and Electrelane’s Axes. The latter will get further consideration in a future “Records That Made Me a Feminist” entry. Albini will probably record your band for a nominal fee. I looked into it when I thought I was going to Northwestern. All you need is a way to Chicago, a little bit of money, and a thick skin.
But Gaar doesn’t just talk about gear. One of In Utero‘s major themes is gestation, and Cobain’s preoccupation with pregnancy, abortion, umbilical cords, and the abject pleasures and terrors of motherhood and womanhood is of critical importance to both Gaar and myself. This was the man who wished he could be a seahorse because its the only species where male members can carry its progeny to term, even as he mocked the co-dependent relationship he had with his wife.
A young father to Frances Bean, Cobain often dressed in women’s clothing, was a supporter of riot grrrl, counted Gordon and Kathleen Hanna as close friends, believed in his wife Courtney Love’s artistic capabilities, felt empathy for troubled women like Frances Farmer, and was responsible for DGC reissuing The Raincoats’ first two albums. He also identified as bisexual at a time when grunge proved to be just another guise for rock’s machismo. If only he had lived to see his daughter grow up. I think they could have learned a lot from each other. But at least he never saw Fred Durst’s chest tattoo. In tribute, my ass. I’ll leave you to Google. I can’t in good conscience put up so grody an image. Instead, let’s look at the cover photo Cobain and Love took for Sassy.
I’ll admit that save for In Utero, Unplugged In New York, and portions of Incesticide, I was never a Nirvana devotee. Nirvana’s sound was just a bit too of its time for me: sludgy guitar, shredded vocals, marked dynamics. It also sounded too traditionally masculine to me, though songs like “Very Ape” and music videos like “In Bloom” call this reading into question.
I enjoyed Nirvana more when they alienated people with noise. Give me “Scentless Apprentice” or “tourette’s” any day. The band also worked for me when they went acoustic, as on “Something In the Way,” “All Apologies,” and the Unplugged performance of “Pennyroyal Tea.” That said, I know what the band meant and continues to mean for people. I hope Cobain’s belief in gender and sexual fluidity is an essential component to some folks’ fandom.
As Cobain left behind a wife and child, Buckley probably understood his father’s legacy from a vantage point akin to Frances Bean’s. Raised by a single mother after his singer-songwriter father Tim ran out and later died of an overdose, Buckley stressed throughout his brief career that he had no real connection to the man whose familial and musical lineage he inherited. I get what he meant, but always questioned the argument. While Tim had more of a conventionally masculine vocal register, both dudes had an affinity for atonal blends of jazz, folk, and rock music and shared a spectral falsetto. And high cheekbones.
You might gather that I have a deeper investment for one artist over the other. Cobain died before I turned 11, so I was just slightly behind the curve with Nirvana. But somehow I was right with Buckley. It helped that I had cable at the time. MTV started playing the music video for “Last Goodbye” as Houston’s alternative station put the single in rotation. The hours I spent thinking about sucking his bottom lip red and raw must have been considerable.
But imagine my surprise when I spent my allowance on Grace and discovered that instead of eight other versions of “Last Goodbye,” the album was far more complex. I devoted hours to understanding the elliptical song structures, the ornate production quality, and the vocalist’s operatic singing style. I was particularly struck by how similar our vocal ranges were.
After a little research, I noticed that Buckley covered many female artists. People can and should continue to talk about his readings of Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and Janet Baker’s interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” are my favorite covers on Grace. In addition, Mahalia Jackson’s “A Satisfied Mind” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” were in his repertoire. I also found out about Édith Piaf after reading somewhere that he covered “Je n’en connais pas la fin,” whereupon I asked my mother who this French lady was. He had a deep admiration for women like Björk and Elizabeth Fraser from The Cocteau Twins. The latter recorded a duet with him called “All Flowers In Time Bend Towards the Sun” and wrote “Rilkean Heart” for him and their relationship.
Buckley also valued the work of women like Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Penny Arcade. He carried these feelings into his relationships with his mother Mary Guibert and partners like musicians Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser. And while a lot of white boys, mysterious or otherwise, appropriate the work of other artists, I never felt like I was listening to someone trying something on, whether it be another person’s race, gender, or both. With Buckley, it always sounded like his voice was guiding him into a process, however brief, of personal transformation because of his musical heroes, many of whom were heroines. It never felt like thievery so much as tribute.
Many have singled Buckley out as a diva. He wanted to be considered as a chanteuse. Shana Goldin-Perschbacher scribed an argument for his transgendered vocal quality in her essay for the anthology Oh Boy!: Masculinities and Popular Music. And while he has since been lauded by rocker dudes like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, many people were put off by the musician’s histrionics and how they offended traditional notions of rock’s paradigmatic heterosexual masculinity. I’ve even heard an acquaintance unfavorably compare him to Mariah Carey. But upon reflection, I’m faced with a startling realization: I might celebrate Buckley’s alignment with the feminine for reasons similar to why I’ve dismissed Patti Smith’s kinship with the masculine.
Thus with Buckley, there’s a lot of contradictions. This is something that Brooks confronts in understanding her fandom and what it might suggest of her status as a black woman in the academy, growing up during the 70s and 80s and completing her graduate studies during the first half of the 1990s — a time marked by hybridization, multiculturalism, political correctness, and third-wave feminism’s embrace of conflicting gender, sexual, and racial politics. Brooks constantly dialogues her own interest with Buckley around an exhaustively researched narrative of the artist’s trajectory, spending most of her time unpacking the one album he completed before drowning at the age of 30 in the Wolf River while working on his follow-up in Memphis.
Of course, we’d do well not to overpraise musicians like Cobain and Buckley, who were imperfect and mortal despite their musical legacies. Cobain constantly had to battle stomach ailments, heroin addiction, and record executives. Buckley may have sung many women’s songs, but the argument could be made that he did it to fuck women through their own music. Of course, doing so risks presumption that women are passive and dominated in the act of fucking, which I take issue with. But unlike Patti Smith, Buckley made sure his pronouns suggested he was the man in a heterosexual relationship. Buckley may sound a bit like fellow Simone fan (and Wasser colleague) Antony Hegarty, but Hegarty kept the pronouns pure when covering “Be My Husband.” Also, Buckley’s heterosexual masculinity allowed him to hover betwixt gender’s poles in song. Hegarty lives there.
But both Cobain and Buckley also suffered loss, confusion, and mental duress. Sometimes, they put those feelings, and many others, into their music. That they identified with women is important, though in greater need of complication. It doesn’t always make them men we love, but it does make their contention with gender and sexuality worthy of feminist inquiry.